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CHAPTER 12 – STAGE THREE
Brutus Maximus stood on the reviewing stand and gazed out over the nine contestants remaining. They were a good team, possibly good enough to complete the task that Amontet had set for the tournament's final phase.
The wizard-prince's avatar—the glowing, disembodied eye—hovered over the throne in the royal box, carefully watching the proceedings.
During the night, mage-engineers had laid down a sliver road leading from the reviewing area to the final challenge: the Empyrian Keep—which stood less than a half mile from the packed grandstands.
The shimmering white tower stretched high into the sky, nearly touching the dark gray clouds rolling in overhead. The intricate scrollwork on the spire's exterior seemed to twist and change in the shadows of the gathering darkness. An hour ago, the morning had been bright and sunny, but now the day was nearly as dim as twilight. Tension hung thick in the air over the grandstand. The attendees talked to each other in hushed tones.
The nine finalists—Crimson, Erisa, Neilo, Orlando, Pirokles, Father Pius, Roj Bond, Seth, and Tarkon—eyed the keep warily, perhaps guessing its place in the tournament's ultimate test. Even the usually boisterous Piro remained silent.
Max frowned. He understood the nervousness of the crowd and the contestants, but it was almost as though the tower, the island, and even the weather itself were anticipating the start of this challenge. His people looked antsy, too. Ilsa Gorvald drummed her fingertips on the grandstand rail, and Herrin paced the platform, muttering to himself. Even Rogina, usually the calm in the eye of the storm, seemed tense as she stood at Max's elbow.
"Ready, Rogi?" Max asked.
She nodded nervously. "Whenever you are, Boss."
Max activated the spell on the amulet that amplified his voice, and he addressed the crowd.
"Welcome to the final stage of the Tournament Maximus!" he boomed.
The crowd roared wildly, exorcizing their anxiety with thunderous applause. Only Brion Wilde, now seated among the audience, didn't clap. Max ignored him and addressed the surviving contestants.
"Congratulations!" the organizer said. "You are the finalists. Among all those who came to Shumakai to compete in this tournament, you are the ones who will continue during this final stage. You are the only ones who have the chance to win the ultimate prize—a favor from the Wizard-Prince Amontet, himself."
As Max spoke the name, the eye hovering above the golden throne momentarily transformed into the image of Amontet—calm, powerful, confident. When the likeness faded again, two eyes remained. One stayed hovering above the throne, but the other drifted down to the contestants and floated nearby, watching.
"As you can see, Amontet's spirit will journey with these brave warriors to personally watch their progress through the final tests," Max said. "Have no fear, though! You, our audience, will be able to experience the thrills as well, just as you have during all the other stages."
Again, the people in the grandstands roared their approval—all save Brion Wilde.
"All of you know that this is no ordinary tournament," Max said, "and some of you have anticipated—especially those in the betting pools I have seen—that this will be no ordinary final stage. Like the last tests, in this phase, our contestants will be competing together, as a team."
More applause, and this time, nods of approval from the contestants themselves, too—all except Tarkon.
Max continued. "Like the other stages of the tournament, this final series of tests pits our contestants against extraordinary obstacles. These trials, though, have not been wrought by my expert team. No! These final tests remain a mystery to everyone involved, and they will be found there—" He pointed to the tower. "—within the mysterious Empyrian Keep!"
The crowd gasped, but the contestants remained steely; clearly the survivors, seeing the silver road, had anticipated this twist.
Max leaned over the rail and spoke in awed tones to the audience. "No one knows where the tower came from. No one knows who built it. No one knows what perils await within!"
Secretly, Max suspected that Amontet might have a very good idea about the tower's interior. Why else would the wizard-prince have been so specific about the types of challenges required for the preliminary rounds? Max felt no need to share that guess with the crowd, though; better to let the fear of the unknown build their anticipation.
The games' organizer straightened and let his voice boom out over the crowd once more. "Who would dare find out? Our champions, of course! And those brave souls who finish this test will gain the tournament's grand prize!
"There's one final catch, though: in order to win that prize, our contestants must not only survive the challenge, they must not only reach the top of the Empyrian Keep and return, but they must also bring back proof of their deeds! For the top of the tower houses a singular treasure.
"There are only two things known for certain about this legendary keep: one is that the tower is not bound by the normal laws of time and space; anything can happen within its walls. The other thing we know for certain is that at the keep's apex lies the Empyrian Diamond—a gem of such fabulous beauty that Amontet has sponsored this entire tournament to obtain it!"
Max turned his eyes to the contestants, who looked anxious to start. "Anyone who survives and returns with the diamond will gain Amontet's favor—a prize even more valuable than the gemstone itself!"
"What are we waiting for!" Roj Bond shouted, pumping his muscular arms in the air. "Let's do it! Let's go!"
Max laughed. Sometimes no more words were necessary. "Indeed!" he boomed. "Let the contest begin!"
The crowd cheered as the contestants walked down the silver road toward the tower. With them went one of the glowing eyes of Amontet and—unnoticed by anyone—the tiny, insect-like magical birds that allowed Max to broadcast the action to the huge, burning brazier.
Max smiled. Whether anyone survived or not, he had won this day. After this, his reputation would be restored. He'd be able to write his own ticket at any arena in the World-Sea.
Or maybe I'll just retire, he mused. Amontet's paying me enough. What could I do for an encore after this, anyway?
As the crowd roared its approval and thunderclouds built overhead, the contestants reached the base of the keep.
Untouched by human hands, the tower door swung open.
THE TOWER: FIRST CHALLENGES
That the tower did not obey the laws of time and space became immediately apparent as the nine contestants crossed the keep's threshold. Passing through the door, they found themselves not within a building, but standing on the steppes of a high desert. Before them stretched a vast, dusty plain bounded in the far distance by a tall cliff.
"Gods of Mercy!" Pius said. "What deviltry is this?"
"Maximus warned us this place would be strange," Orlando said.
"Deal with it, and let's get going," Crimson added. Despite the unfamiliar landscape, the magical silver stripe still showed the course they needed to take.
"Red's right," Roj agreed. "Time's a wastin' and we need to get to that prize."
Tarkon said nothing, but began walking toward the distant cliffs.
"Big talker, that guy," Piro whispered to Neilo. "Once we're outta this place, remind me to toast his biscuits as payback for Yan."
Despite the strength of their company, Neilo felt nervous. "We can't think about that now," he whispered back. "We need to concentrate on the tasks at hand—like Brion would if he were here."
"Well, that quitter's not here, is he?" Piro said. "I'll bide my time, but the minute we don't need that big galoot . . . Pfft!" He snapped his fingers and sparks flew.
"Come on, boys. Move it!" Erisa said. "My man may be dying out there, on the island, and I need to get back with the prize before he does." She jerked her thumb toward the cliffs and walked on.
Neilo licked his lips. The Midknight looked very alluring in her scanty blue armor, despite the circumstances.
Piro grinned and nodded. "Yeah. She's hot. Let's go, Loser."
The fire mage's quip jangled Neilo's nerves, but the young elf fell in step with the rest. The group soon formed a marching order, Tarkon at the front, followed by Roj and Crimson, with Piro, Orlando, Neilo, and Pius in the middle, and Erisa and Seth bringing up the rear.
The tower exit, which had been merely a threshold standing in the middle of the sandy plain, soon vanished from view. The landscape sloped uphill as they went, and gentle winds stirred ochre dust into air.
Crimson stopped, her pale blue eyes staring at a tiny whirlwind in the distance. Orlando came to a halt as well. "It's just a dust devil," he said.
"I don't think so, but let's hope," Crimson replied. "Keep the group moving." She returned to the front of the line, and the others kept walking. But the further they walked, the more Roj Bond drifted toward the back.
"Are you all right?" Neilo whispered as the muscleman drifted back to him. Roj looked pale and sweaty, and his massive limbs were trembling.
"Fine," Roj snapped. "I just wanted to check the rear guard for a while. Okay? Worry about yourself."
Neilo nodded, but he kept an eye on the warrior. When the group neared the cliff, Roj had dropped all the way back to the rear of the column. Unaware Neilo was watching, Roj reached into a pouch at his waist, took out a small, black bug, and swallowed it.
Some kind of magic, Neilo deduced. Probably to keep his strength up. I wonder how long he's been taking those bugs, and how long they last?
He hoped the big man's strength wouldn't give out just when they needed it. The young elf had no sooner formed the thought, than the desert wind suddenly whipped up, filling the air with hot, gritty dust.
Crimson wheeled to the rear and cried, "We're under attack!" The others immediately formed into a defensive ring, all save Roj, who lagged behind.
A dirty whirlwind, half again as tall as a man, streaked out of the sandstorm, heading straight for the muscleman. Roj drew his sword and sliced at it, but the weapon passed harmlessly through.
The swirling creature wrapped around him, and Roj's muscular body began to shake. His skin wrinkled and then cracked. He cried out.
"No!" Neilo shouted. He ran forward and stabbed his enchanted longsword into the creature, but even as he did, Roj crumbled into dust.
For a moment, the monster's hot wind and sand swirled around the young elf. Neilo kept slashing bravely, and the dusty elemental reeled back; apparently the elf's enchanted sword wasn't to its taste after all. Neilo retreated, panting.
"It's a sirocco!" Seth called to the rest. "An air elemental that thrives on heat! Normal weapons can't harm it!"
"Well, let's see if this can!" Pius boomed. He pulled a small, round bottle from a pouch at his belt and hurled the container at the elemental. As the bottle arced through the dusty air, the priest whispered a fervent prayer.
Instantly, the bottle burst and white clouds filled the air above their enemy. Thunder cracked and torrential rain poured down, drenching the sirocco and taming its hot winds, leaving a small, nearly transparent figure behind.
Crimson leapt forward and chopped off the thing's head. As the body fell, it, too, crumbled into dust. As the last of the creature vanished, the sandstorm died away.
"Well cut," Seth said. "And well done as well, priest."
"I could have killed it, too," Piro boasted.
"Perhaps next time," Orlando said—without a trace of irony.
Crimson looked at Neilo, concern written on her pretty face. "Are you all right?" she asked.
"Yes, I'm fine," the elf replied.
Crimson didn't say anything, but merely pointed to his hands.
Neilo looked down. He hadn't noticed until that moment, but as he'd fought the monster, the dusty elemental had left its mark on him. Neilo's skin—recently so young and pliable—was now dry and withered.
"Don't worry about it," he said. "I'm sure the healers can fix it." In fact, he didn't feel sure about that at all. How much life had the elemental sucked out of him? He was an elf, but even elves didn't live forever. He fought down the worry. I have to go on, he thought. For my brothers. For mother!
His bravado didn't seem to convince Crimson.
"Besides," he added, trying to sound braver than he felt, "this is nothing compared to what happened to poor Roj."
The spider-cats attacked when the remaining group had climbed halfway up the desert cliff. The creatures looked like mountain lions, but they had six legs, could scramble across sheer walls like an insect, and the ends of their tails sprayed sticky webbing. Worse, their slick coats took on the appearance of whatever they were crawling across—not immediately, but quickly enough to make them difficult to see.
Erisa hated them from the moment she first laid eyes on one. She'd been in the middle of the "pack"—which is how she'd come to think of the line of eight remaining contestants—when the first monster appeared out of a crack in the cliff face, right in front of Orlando.
The acrobat got bit in the left arm, and only his considerable gymnastic skills saved him from a nasty fall ending with a quick, fatal stop. Others feline arachnids sprang out of cracks on all side, quickly surrounding the team and trying to entwine them in sticky webs.
Too bad for them they decided to get in my way today, Erisa thought as she rammed her sword through the nearest spider-cat's yellow eyes. Like the others, she'd been on edge since Roj Bond's sudden death, and the appearance of a solid, mortal foe—even halfway up the side of a steep cliff—almost seemed like a blessing
"Fry suckers!" Piro cried, hurling bolts of orange flame at the monsters.
"Careful, boy!" Pius thundered. "Those webs are flammable! If you don't watch out, you'll scorch us all!"
Tarkon and Seth went about their business wordlessly, cutting down the felines with efficient gusto. Crimson's blade felled just as many, though she occasionally took time to yell instructions, like, "Climb up to the next ledge; it's more defensible," or warnings like, "Watch out, Neilo!"
That seemed to have become her favorite refrain. The elf—who still looked like hell—hadn't been the same since their encounter with the sirocco. Erisa wasn't sure whether he'd been badly shaken by Roj's death, or if the monster's withering attack had just taken the life out of him. Whatever the case, Crimson seemed to spend a lot of time protecting Neilo's back.
Because of that, the red-haired warrior mostly left the Midknight alone—which was fine. Erisa knew her business and was nearly as efficient in killing as Crimson, Seth, or Tarkon.
They'd make good Midknights, all of them, she thought—then regretted it as thinking of her mercenary order made her remember Uldred. She almost wished she were with him. He'd made her promise to continue the contest, though. It was the last thing he'd told her. He'd only woken momentarily in the healers' tents, just long enough to say, "Go on . . . Finish it for me. Win the prize. You . . . deserve it!"
Tearfully, she'd agreed to continue, not just because he'd asked her to, but because a plan of her own had begun to form in Erisa's mind. But would her scheme do any good if Uldred died before she returned with the gem?
"Erisa! Watch it!" Crimson called.
Erisa was about to curse her out, but stopped to duck under a leaping spider-cat instead. The creature landed on the cliff wall next to the Midknight and plastered her right leg to the cliff with a gob of sticky webbing.
Exerting all her strength, Erisa ripped her leg free, twisted, and stabbed her sword through the spider-cat's back, pinning it against the escarpment. The creature died, but as it did, it lost its grip on the cliff face. It fell with Erisa's sword still in it, pulling the weapon and the Midknight along.
Erisa shook the cat free of her blade, but not before she'd been pulled to the brink of the ledge she'd been standing on. She tottered and clutched for the cliff face with her left hand, but only succeeded in bruising her fingertips on the rock. Her toes slipped over the edge and she cursed, silently wishing she hadn't ripped free of the webbing, which might have held her in place.
The Midknight fell, knowing in that moment that the only way she'd see Uldred again would be in the afterlife. Something he'd once told her flashed through her mind: "I'd trade eternity in paradise for a moment in hell with you."
See you in hell, my love, she thought.
Then, suddenly, she jerked to a stop. For a moment, Erisa thought that another spider-cat might have snared her. But looking up, she saw Orlando, his left arm still bleeding, dangling from the edge of the cliff and holding onto her with his right hand.
"Climb up quickly!" the acrobat said. "You're pretty spry, but I can't hold on forever!"
At that moment, Erisa could have kissed him—though skinny guys with blow-wave blond hair weren't really her type. Instead, she did as he asked and quickly scrambled back to the cliff face. Once she had, Orlando pulled himself up as well.
The other members of the team were just finishing off the last of the spider-cats.
"Nice catch," Crimson told Orlando as he and Erisa re-secured their footing on the cliff face.
"I've made better," the acrobat replied, "but few as pretty—or well timed."
"Remind me to return the favor some time," Erisa said.
But in her mind she thought, Uldred, my love, we're not done yet!
THE TOURNAMENT CONTINUES . . .
NEXT: The Tower Takes Its Toll
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